Our Perspective – Response to Deseret News Column

 

John Florez, in a recent Deseret News column, wrote about the state’s budget surplus of $550 million and then attempted to claim that the Legislature has behaved irresponsibly with taxpayer money. He even went so far as to say that it “acts as if it has no limit, simply swiping the taxpayers’ credit card.” We might want to point out that over $445 million of that surplus went toward education. More on that later.

Florez actually advocated spending the money on “health care for the working poor,” and by that we presume he means full Medicaid expansion through Obamacare; yes, that billion-dollar-a-year boondoggle. That’s right – nearly $1,00a0,000,000 per year of state and federal taxpayer money, most of it borrowed. This would have equated to a swiping of the taxpayers’ credit card, or more accurately, future taxpayers – it’s a credit card issued in the name of our children and grandchildren.

The state already has a Medicaid program that covers over 300,000 mostly disabled adults and children, at a cost of about $2.2 billion annually. The cost of this program alone increased by $38 million last year alone.

Now, on to the question of how the Utah Legislature chose to so foolishly and wastefully spend that surplus.

In addition to the $550 million in surplus revenue, legislators were able to find additional cost-savings and shifts that allowed for $668 million in new and reallocated resources. As already mentioned, over $445 million of that money went toward increased education funding.

Half of the Education Fund revenue surplus was set aside, nearly $60 million, and placed in the Education Rainy Day Fund. This fund allows the state to better sustain education spending during downturns, and was part of the reason Utah cut far less than most states during the last recession.

In the 2016 budget, legislators also paid down $335 million in debt and included a $325 million pay-down in the budget for fiscal year 2017. Such profligate spending really must stop!

Florez claimed as recently as February of this year that justice reform was not adequately funded and he pointed to Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Mathew Durant’s comment that not funding mental health and drug abuse treatment for criminals could lead to more crime. The Legislature then funded those things in this year’s session and now Florez calls this funding that helps “prisoners, the chronically homeless and people in need of treatment for substance abuse or mental health issues,”  “squander[ing] our tax dollars . . .” It’s looking like there’s no winning with this guy.

He also claims that the Legislature voted to appropriate “$14 million to hire a New Orleans law firm” to pursue the federal lands legal case, “a deal they were told they had little chance to win.”

First of all, the Legislature didn’t vote to hire anybody. They set aside $4.5 million, not $14 million, to possibly pursue a case. If, at some point in the future, the state decides to go forward, a Request for Proposal, or RFP, would be issued and various attorneys and/or firms could bid for the work.

Now let’s address the “little chance to win,” comment. Did Florez even read the summary of the legal analysis done for the Commission for the Stewardship of Public Lands last year? These legal experts concluded that the state’s case has a strong constitutional and legal basis. The analysis also pointed out that in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, reaffirmed a long tradition of recognition of state sovereignty and equal footing claims going back to 1845 in Pollard v. Hagen. This reaffirmation only strengthens Utah’s case. They said a lot more than that, but that’s a start. It can be read in its entirety here.

As far as the “lobbying group” hired for “$2 million to work on public land issues,” uh, no. $2 million was appropriated by the Legislature for various work on lands issues, less than half of which has been spent. Of the money spent, the majority was used to produce the very thorough legal analysis which was done by a number of well-respected attorneys and legal scholars, not lobbyists. Did he get anything right on public lands?

Now for the Oakland port. The “$51 million” appropriated is actually $53 million authorized to be used, that will be paid back to the state almost immediately using funds from the Permanent Community Impact Board.

The CIB provides loans or grants to state agencies and subdivisions of the state that are socially or economically impacted by mineral resource development on federal lands. The CIB board approved low-interest loans to Carbon, Emery, Sevier and Sanpete County during their April 2 meeting last year. Federal mineral royalties fund the CIB — not state taxes — and will allow Utah to export various commodities from our state. While coal isn’t the only one, it’s the one everybody wants to talk about, so let’s talk coal.

China produces dirty coal and uses lots of it in energy production. They would like access to cleaner coal, something we have here in our state. Utah coal energy content, low water and low sulfur will replace lower-quality coal consumption to produce environmental benefits. As has been pointed out by Democrat Rep. Brad King, if China were to use only Utah’s coal to meet all of its demand, its power-plant emissions would drop in half

So, not only will this Oakland port have no fiscal impact on the state — well, other than the positive one as it sustains jobs in rural Utah — the impact on the environment is absolutely beneficial. Ever been to China and seen the pollution? This is clean-air policy.

Yeah, he’s right, “we have only ourselves to blame” when those lousy politicians – making public policy in one of the best-managed states in the nation that has been repeatedly recognized as one of the strongest and best states for business, at the top in income growth and with some of the best performing cities – pay down debt, put money aside for a rainy day, use most of the surplus for education and medical care for children and the disabled and fund programs to reduce recidivism, crime and homelessness. Can’t get much worse than that.